All social ethics takes place in a context of history. Christian social ethics is no different: as Christians we do not have a set of principles that apply to every generation of history. The ethics of Leviticus and the ethics of Deuteronomy were shaped for those times in history. The same applies to the ethics of Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Luther, and H. Richard Niebuhr. Time moves on and social ethics moves on with the times.
The Depth of Love
What Christianity brings to each social times is a depth of the meaning of the word “love” or “agape.” Such love, understood deeply, is indeed applicable to any and all times. This love is not a set of principles, but a raw attitude toward life and death. Agape love is the essence of the Christian saint. (This also applies to the Jewish and Islamic saint. Hindus, Buddhists, and others also have similar aspirations.) It is to a historically encountered Reality, that is our devotion as Christians. Reality gives us life and all the specific gifts and opportunities of our life. The Christian saint gives all those gifts back to Reality. Just as Abraham was prepared to give back Isaac who was his only son and all the evidence he had for his historical hope, so the Christian saint is prepared to give back all the gifts given to him or her. This giving back is the meaning of agape or Christian love. Everything is given back to Reality, our God. According to Luke’s’ gospel the last words of Jesus were, “Into Thy hands I commend my consciousness.” That is the meaning of death for the Christian saint: the final giving back.
The giving back of death and of our whole life does not take place only at the moment of our biological finality. As was the case with Jesus, the giving back of his whole life began in the gap between his baptism in the river Jordan (a washing or death to the whole evil era) and his vocation (continuing John the Baptist’s radical mission in Jesus’ own fresh radical way.) The 40 days Jesus is said to have spent in the desert was a time of praying through whether on not he would give back his whole being in carrying out the august calling that he saw set before him.
Giving back is the essence of love within whatever vocation in whatever era a Christian saint shows up. And “saint” here does not mean something super-duper special. A Christian saint is just some ordinary person who stops complaining about what he or she has been given and what he or she has not been given, and simply gives back to Reality everything he or she has been given by Reality. “Those to whom much has been given, much shall be required.” This old saying is a lesson about the nature of deep love.
A Christian Social Ethics for 2018
A Christian Social Ethics for 2018 begins with some deep understanding of these times. “These times” means this historical moment in its planet-wide and history-long contexts. Today, the terms “civilized,” “civil,” and “civilization” have come up for fresh definition—or perhaps we need new words altogether. Anthropologists have explored the transition from hunter-gatherer societies to civilizations as a passage through two intermediate stages: (1) Tribal societies of some complexity in agricultural or ocean-fishing abilities and (2) societies that can be characterized as chiefdoms. These two modes of being social are seen as something short of a full-blown civilization with a centralized state apparatus. The word “state” in this analysis means an elite selection of persons who politically rule the people living in a specific expanse of geography. Most of these ruled people are peasants or slaves with little political and economic power. These “underclasses” do choose from time to time which state establishment to serve or how an existing state establishment can be replaced with a “better for them” group of overlords. But until very recent times, not having overloads at all has been unthinkable within anything we have called “civilization.”
If such hierarchical order characterizes our standard definition of “civilization,” then the fairly recent developments in democracy must be seen as a type of dismantlement of civilization. What words do we use for that future post-civilization? “Eco-Democracy” has been suggested.
As civilizations have developed in the industrial period, we have seen the appearance of larger and larger middle classes. Democracy in its earliest 18th century developments was the promotion of middle class people to greater influence over the upper echelons of society through voting and other institutions of governing. Underclasses, including slaves, remained. And while royalty was displaced, there remained and still remains a continuing presence of a very wealthy and influential upper echelon of society. A full democratization of a society means more than ending slavery and giving women the vote; it includes making every member of society middle class—both ending grueling poverty and doing away with a ruling class of excessively wealthy people. This need not mean a complete equality of wealth and power, but it does mean establishing an equity of a hither-to-fore absent extent.
Such a “classless” society has not yet happened. Even moderately democratic societies are deeply threatened by reactionary movements toward authoritarianism. In Putin’s Russia and Trump’s USA, we see the presence of a retreat from democracy into oligarchical rule, or even single-ego chiefdom rule. Such un-democracy is a trend of political aspiration throughout the planet. And moving forward toward full democracy is still seen as a radical aspiration, rather than seen as a necessity for peace, prosperity, and wellbeing for this species and the needed ecological sanity for the natural planet.
In this hour of history, Christian love for humanity and the planet means embracing this aspiration for a full democracy. Steps toward this aspiration can only begin from where we now are. And this means creating a united movement devoted to next steps that 51 to 80% of the population can understand and support. Here are some of those next steps that we as a population within the United States are now relatively open to take:
The Flowering of the Women’s Movement
Dismantling Institutionalized Racism
Moderating the Climate Catastrophe
Promoting Equity in Wealth Distribution
The Democratic Overthrow of Authoritarianism
Educating a Dumbed-down Citizenry
Of course these six imperatives might be stated better, and other statements might be added to them or included within them. Nevertheless, these are necessary social ethics imperatives for every awakening citizen of the United States in 2018. By “awakening” I mean awakening to the historical reality in which we dwell. These social imperatives are more than a bit of best-case thinking about realism; from the perspective of the agape quality of Christian love these imperatives are “commands of God.”
If the word “God” is understood as meaning a dynamic of devotion attached to the historical encounter with the “un-word” that we are pointed to with the word “Reality,” then “command of God” simply means the imperative for realistic living.
The prophet of God knows that all the words with which we point to Reality are pointing to a moving target. Reality talks back to us all the time. Reality is never entirely held in our mere words. Even our best current words become obsolete. But that does not bother the prophet of God: we prophets of God know that. We know that what we spoke yesterday and what we speak today may not be good enough for what we speak tomorrow. Such is the nature of our actualization of agape in our historical moments of response.
An ambiguous progression of relative certainties is our Christian calling to social response-ability.
For more on the topic of social ethics see our 2011 book:
The Road From Empire to Eco-Democracy